Garbage disposal at a landfill outside Winnipeg was paused Thursday as calls to search the area for the remains of two Indigenous women believed to be the victims of an alleged serial killer intensified.
Premier Heather Stefanson said the management of the Prairie Green landfill, a privately owned dump north of the city, has halted operations as the province and the city figure out what to do.
"It's very important that we take this pause and we get it right," she said.
"We need to assess the site. We need to do many different things over the course of the next little while. In the meantime, all we're calling for right now is a pause."
Some of those next steps will include working with Indigenous communities, said Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham.
"We in no way want to jeopardize that case. But it's important that ... the Indigenous community and Indigenous leaders help inform next steps as well."
Police Chief Danny Smyth said this week that it's believed the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran ended up in a landfill outside the city in the spring. He said the chances of finding them are very low.
Smyth cited the passage of time, the fact that 10,000 truckloads of refuse were dumped in the area in the following months, and that trash at the landfill is compacted with heavy mud at a depth of about 12 metres.
He acknowledged the families' pain and anger and said this was not how he wanted the searches to end.
First Nations leaders in Manitoba are calling for him to resign.
Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson said failing to search for the women's remains does not instil a sense of public safety in the community. She said Smyth should step down immediately so action can be taken to search the landfill.
"The message you are sending to the greater community is that Indigenous don't matter," Wilson said during a press conference Thursday in Ottawa. "That if somebody wants to hurt our women that they can dump them in the landfill and no one will look for them."
Harris's family has joined in the call for Smyth to resign.
Kera Harris said she is fed up with police inaction in finding her mother's remains. She added that if Smyth can't get the search done, he should step down and give someone else the opportunity to provide the family with an appropriate resolution.
"We are all trying to reach a reasonable compromise, but we have yet to receive words of acknowledgment, response nor agreements," she said. "Not only have you refused to search these landfills, you have presented no alternative routes for how we can give these women peace."
Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran, Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman that Indigenous leaders have called Buffalo Woman.
Police believe the women were killed in the spring, although investigators have so far only located Contois's body.
Her partial remains were found in a garbage bin in the city and in a separate landfill in the spring.
Wilson was also joined by several other First Nations leaders in Manitoba in calling for Smyth's resignation.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization in Manitoba recommended shutting down the landfill to address safety concerns.
"You can't use language around it's not feasible because that doesn't work for us. It doesn't work for our women, and it's not going to work for our relationship with the police," he said.
The Winnipeg police board is meeting Thursday evening to discuss next steps, said Markus Chambers, chairman of the board.
He said the conversation will focus on helping the families, not on calls for Smyth to resign.
"Given the fact that the community has just come through the residential school system and the unmarked graves, we have to be sensitive to that," Chambers said. "That's exactly where we are right now in requesting the pause."
The deaths of the women came up at an Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa where several federal ministers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about support for the community.
"These chilling and recurring acts of violence against Indigenous women cannot continue. Our government remains committed to transformational change," Trudeau told First Nations chiefs.
He said Ottawa will continue to work to implement changes to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the federal government will rally around the families.
"These families deserve the same professional support as every other Canadian does," he said. "We'll do whatever we can to make sure that law enforcement has the tools and the resources that are necessary to do the job."
Any decisions taken by police will be done independently, he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2022.
— with files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa